Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

I Am Not Your Juxtaposition.

Rachel Choi
Illustration by Rachel Choi.

There is a specific awareness indicative of being colonized; the kind I was born into. It’s an intimate part of myself I will never be separate from, because existing in the context of my culture is surviving the impacts of its colonial history. But sometimes, I forget. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, where being Asian-American is complicated enough—a different type of awareness exists for me specific to the American context. 

Since moving to the Netherlands as a part of Emerson’s Kasteel Well program, I can’t help but remember and recognize. My education and even my current curriculum have encouraged me to confront the tensions of my identity. I am learning, and this has exposed to me a multitude of complexities of self; who am I allowed to be in a post-colonial country of colonizers who often choose to ignore the effects of their colonization?

They told us the Dutch made efforts to acknowledge their history as colonizers and to prevent the erasure of history. They told us this, without saying much else. We were brought to the Amsterdam Museum, where only half a wall was provided to display artwork and objects that recognized the Netherlands’ colonies. The paintings and figures, along with the blurb that recognized Dutch colonial actions, oversimplified an extremely long and horrific colonial past. This display sat among others heralding the rise of Dutch society and arts, which could not have been possible without the aforementioned long and horrific colonial past. 

The wall-space dedicated to this display could never provide the room needed to demonstrate the scale of Dutch colonization, and the way that it destroyed more than a Vermeer or Rembrandt could ever compensate for. There wasn’t even enough room for them to display six letters spelling out the word: Taiwan. A museum dedicated to the history of the Netherlands and they couldn’t find the space to remember the 50 years that they occupied my home country, depleting our natural resources for sugar production and other industries—the 50 years they spent murdering and exploiting the people there for their own economic gain. They call this time a part of their “Golden Age,” taking pride in their expansion; but to the rest of us who carry the history of their oppressive systems, there is nothing “golden” about this era. 

In Amsterdam, I found myself in the courtyard of a quiet university building while exploring the city. Its brick walls are unremarkable, but as I looked up at the windows I noticed a familiar insignia welded onto the facade: VOC, the Dutch abbreviation for the East India Trading Company, spelled out in bent iron. Standing there, in what used to be that Company’s headquarters, I felt like a ghost. There aren’t enough physical remnants of Taiwan’s colonization to be evidential; manifestations of our history don’t take shape as much as they remain invisible, a phantom weight even after direct colonial pressures ended. We don’t have big, stately buildings left, no marks left in metal. While they remind themselves of their “golden” age, our oppression is forgotten. In this absence, I remember.

I remember as I travel through Europe, as I study its art and its culture. I remember even as I stand in awe of a towering cathedral, even as I admire the brushwork of a masterful painting. I remind myself that the things we are taught to find beautiful, impressive, and worthy of praise arose in all their glory from a society that could afford to produce them by building itself off the oppression of other people and places. 

I remind myself that we are taught to find these things beautiful and impressive and worthy of praise because they have been “teaching” us this for centuries. So even as I am filled with wonder and appreciation as I explore this part of the world, I cannot let myself forget that so much of what I am experiencing is impossible to separate from the exploitation of other societies and cultures, whose own ability to flourish was cut short. I cannot forget that my people were treated as commodities, and were not considered people at all. The echoes that resonate today do not allow me the privilege of forgetting.

Walking down the street, I notice people often stare. My friendly greetings are commonly met with silence, as the Dutch locals I cross paths with openly watch me with an almost impersonal look on their faces. In those moments I feel a growing disconnect, as if I am becoming something separate from them. Some thing, and not someone. My differences dehumanize me. They blink in my face without registering the words I utter and I feel more like an artifact in a museum than a person living and breathing and walking the earth like everyone else. 

We are still shocked by the atrocities that humans are capable of committing against each other in this world, but it’s as easy as letting differences define us, as calling someone “other.” As letting something separate you from someone else. Othering operates as a way to claim and exercise power over someone else; it can hardly be denied that white Europe has historically asserted the most power on the basis of this othering. They did it intentionally, made people into commodities, made them less than people, made them nothing more than the differences between. 

It stripped away humanity; scientific efforts within colonial cultures made a conscious effort to classify the people they conquered and enslaved as less-evolved, as animals and savages. They justified their actions systematically, and remnants of the system continue to have social effects within cultural landscapes. Colonized people became understood in the Eurocentric context as creatures to be studied, as curiosities and as objects, never on the same level of existence. Our objectification persists.

I’m Asian, and my experience with Europe has been shaped by this simple fact. No colonial history is the same, and the positions of Asia and Europe relative to each other have produced unique tensions. Edward Said’s book, “Orientalism,” claims that the Orient, or Asia as it was understood by its colonizers, was imagined, produced, and tangibly constructed by European powers. Orientalism, distinct from the actual reality of what is Asian, represents a separate concept—a romanticized interpretation based on contrasts. Said argues that Europe produced ideas of “the Orient” as “one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” It became a tool for differentiation, an aid in culturally defining and reinforcing the West as opposed to the East. 

It isn’t real, not really; Orientalism as an idea is a product that Asia was subjected to when Europe made it, made us what they wanted to by writing our history, telling our story, silencing our voice and speaking it for us. Because of this, a Western consciousness of what Asia is cannot be easily separated from ideas of Orientalism; it is the filter through which understandings of Asia were filtered through for centuries. 

Up until 1940, “human zoos” were still an attraction across Europe, displaying people from countries that were colonized. Amsterdam and Nijmegen are among the Dutch cities that participated in this, putting Indonesian and Surinamese people and artifacts on public display as spectacle—for others to gawk at what they did not understand. Viewing what is Asian as interesting only because it’s distinct from what is European is as much a part of our history as it is our present. The legacy of this cultural consciousness has made way for the post-colonial version of yellow fever, for a European fascination with Asia but never a respectful appreciation that equates us to each other without disparity. 

As much as I am Taiwanese, I am also a part of the Netherlands. Our histories cannot be separated as easily as they like to pretend. A complicated colonial history exists within every interaction and experience I have here. A complicated colonial history exists within me too; I am the child of these legacies and I am distinctly aware of my burdens.

It is so easy to become overwhelmed by all that Europe is and has made itself to be; a more refined and glorious civilization has been their personal narrative for centuries. I refuse myself the privilege of an ignorant appreciation. I refuse the story Europe tells of itself because I refuse the story it has imposed upon me. I am Asian, and I am in Europe. But I am not your fetish. I am not an object for observation, something for you to stare at. My life, the culture of my country and its people is not something for you to exoticize, to dehumanize in the same way you did when you used us to build your empires. My otherness is not something less than you, nor does it make me all that different. I do not exist as your juxtaposition. This narrative is mine. Consider it a re-orientation.

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